Back in 1994, a movie was made about the superhero team known as the Fantastic Four, directed by legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman. The movie was low-budget, cheesy, campy… and, unbeknownst to the cast and crew, intended never to be released since there had never been any intention of actually making it good.
Why am I mentioning this? Because despite its silliness, shoestring budget and incredibly hokey acting, that absurd little ashcan movie had a certain charm, an earnestness. It had heart.
And you won’t find any of that in the film released more than twenty years later, Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four (or as many people call it, “Fan4stic”). This is one of those adaptations that seems to be ashamed of its own source material – it’s a dry, dour, dismal and darkly disinterested expanse of choppy storytelling, a staggeringly bad villain, and a superhero team that don’t even really seem to like one another or care about saving the world.
Our… I’m going to say “hero” is Reed Richards (Miles Teller), who spends his formative years building a teleportation machine with his best friend Ben (Jamie Bell). Their efforts attract the attention of Dr. Storm and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara), who are apparently roaming random high school science fairs in search of scientific genius.
They quickly snatch up Reed and set him to work creating an interdimensional teleporter, assisted by Sue’s street-racing brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), who doesn’t seem to have any scientific expertise, and computer programmer Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbel). Upon hearing that astronauts will be sent into this other dimension instead of the nerd squad, Reed, Victor and Johnny all get drunk, and decide to go themselves. Yes, being a bunch of dumb drunks is the superhero origin story for this team.
Naturally, their trip is a complete disaster, leaving Victor presumed dead, and Reed, Ben, Johnny and Sue all burdened with superpowers that they don’t really want. Reed flees the facility for reasons that are never really explained, even though he is the key to rebuilding the teleporter and finding a cure for their conditions. However, they have no idea what is waiting for them on the other side.
The overall feeling I get from Fantastic Four is shame. It’s the kind of embarrassment a teenager feels when his mom whips out the baby album and shows his friends how cute he was in his baby bonnet. Fantastic Four wants to be a super-serious-edgy-not-at-all-silly-or-weird-like-the-comics movie, distancing itself from the comics rather than embracing them. No movie has ever been good when it is ashamed of its source material.
And unfortunately, this is not the kind of dark/gritty/serious movie that is plotted intricately and paced well, with plenty of action to keep the story feeling dynamic. This is a movie that seems to cycle from one poorly-lit room to another, with people talking in low monotones without much facial expression. On the rare occasions when action occurs – such as Ben Grimm ripping tanks apart – the movie quickly shifts it to a small TV screen, as if afraid that something exciting might happen.
It also timeskips shortly after the characters get their powers, which only makes the characters feel more disconnected from each other. By the time the main villain shows up, the movie is nearly over, and it tumbles over itself to have a final battle that feels both cliched (look, a sky-beam!) and strangely rushed. It’s like Fantastic Four can’t wait to be over.
And perhaps the movie’s biggest problem is that none of the characters are likable – Teller, Mara, Jordan and Bell are all wildly talented actors, but they’re drained of charisma and individual energy. Johnny seems like a petulant child, Reed is a piece of bland toast, and Mara seems like she’s just enduring it all. Only Bell gets any real development – the scene where Ben begs Reed not to leave him is genuinely heartrending, one of the few effective scenes in the whole movie.
Worst of all, the characters don’t seem like they even like each other. There’s no sense of sibling love between Johnny and Sue, no chemistry between Sue and Reed, and Reed and Ben barely even spend time around each other. They don’t feel like superheroes – they just feel like people with superpowers who don’t really get along until the climactic battle demands that they team up.
And Victor von Doom…. oh, dear. One of Marvel’s most infamous and fascinating villains… is turned into a pseudo-nihilistic computer-nerd edgelord who’s irritated that Sue won’t date him.
Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four is a grim, unpleasant slog – a poorly-lit, action-light story that never picks up any momentum. But the greatest sin is that it never has any heart – just a foursome of bland, unlikable characters.